Finding your course in life—or finding your way back onto your intended path often requires a compass. Tonight’s Once Upon a Time episode “True North” treats us to an alternative take on the classic fairy tale of Hansel (Quinn Lord) and Gretel (Karly Scott Collins). And the episode marks the first “happy ending” to which we’ve been privy in the story thus far. Can this be further evidence of the curse’s fragility and Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) effect—and, I might add, the power of family?
With their woodcutter father (Nick Lea—a memorable Alex Krycek on The X-Files) taken captive by the Evil Queen (Lana Parilla), Hansel and Gretel are left to fend for themselves in the Enchanted Forest. To be reunited with him, they only need to do the Evil Queen a simple favor: steal an important curse from the Blind Witch (Emma Caulfield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)—a curse needed to defeat a hated enemy!
The witch lives in a unique house—tempting and tasty. But the children are admonished to leave whatever temptations they may have at the doorstep. “Eat nothing,” she warns them.
But who wouldn’t want to take just a taste of the witch’s fondant-decorated candy cottage? I have to give full kudos here to the brilliant art department and production designers of the show. The cottage is gorgeous, eye-popping and irresistable. So who can blame Hansel for wanting to take just a little lick of buttercream from a too-tempting cupcake?
Alas, it awakens the The Blind Witch and soon she has both children locked away in her larder ready for a little snack…hers. The witch has cannibalistic leanings, with the bones of countless children lie scattered in front of her hearth. (Oh my!) And she is ravenous. But fortunately, Hansel and Gretel are destined to be food for the her table; they eventually outsmart her and manage to escape, tossing her into the oven just like in the classic story! And what curse could possibly have been so important to the queen? It’s the infamous poisoned apple, of course.
When the kids return to the queen’s castle, she is so impressed by the children’s resourcefulness in obtaining the object of her desire, she offers them a home in her castle—which they refuse, wanting only to find their father. The queen is curious. Why would Hansel and Gretel pass up an opportunity to live in a magic castle in favor of reuniting with their impoverished father? It makes no sense to the heartless one.
I adored the scene in which the curious queen asks the father why Hansel and Gretel are willing to forego riches for a poor woodcutter of a father. It is as if she honestly cannot comprehend the sentiment, deeply touched by the notion that family trumps riches. It’s a lovely, subtly played and honest moment, perfectly played by Parrilla, whose queen, and Mayor Regina, are designed to be very much over the top.
Back in Storybrooke, Henry (Jared Gilmore) befriends two young children living on their own in an abandoned house. They should really be sent into foster care, but Emma is reluctant as sheriff to accommodate the strictest sense of the law. Trying to identify the father, Emma takes the kids’ antique compass to Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) with the hope of finding a link back to the missing dad. He’s happy to help, recognizing the compass as something acquired from his shop, but of course there’s a price to retrieve the name from his well-kept record box. He coyly asks for forgiveness from the new sheriff, but she counters with “tolerance.” “That’s a start,” he offers, giving her the name Michael Tillman. But when he replaces the card in the box, we notice that it is blank. Hmm. It’s clearly an important detail; Mr. Gold’s knowledge of names is vast (and of course ties back into Rumple’s obsession with them).
Emma locates the dad (Nicholas Lea! Hey, who remembers him as Alex Krychek from The X-Files?), who’s not interested in suddenly becoming parent to adolescent twins he’d never known existed. Desperate to keep the kids out of the foster care system, she manipulates the father into meeting them. Magic happens, and a hesitant father takes baby steps into forging a family, paralleling the Fairy Tale’s narrative. During the episode, we learn a little more about Emma and her backstory, but more importantly, her strong feelings about family and rootlessness—and how that’s affected her worldview.
There are a couple of interesting threads about the nature of family that the series has explored in the last couple of weeks. There’s a contrast made between the queen’s cluelessness about it in “True North” and Rumple’s sacrifice for it in “Desperate Souls.” These are two characters whose Storybrooke alter egos are often diametrically opposed forces—but in some ways quite similar. How they each shaped by their experiences with family love and devotion. Add to that Emma’s experiences, and an interesting picture begins to emerge.
First, let’s look at Emma: she was found as a baby, abandoned on the side of the road. She’s never known any semblance of family, spending her youth in the foster care system. In Fairy Tale Land, Emma is saved when she’s placed in an armoire just before the queen’s curse sweeps over the land, and as a result, she is not relegated to Storybrooke. Although she’s transported to our contemporary world, she has aged 28 years (unlike the other characters, who’ve not aged at all, apparently), and according to Rumple in the pilot, this is when she’s to appear to begin breaking the queen’s curse.
She lives her life without family, giving up her baby when it’s born in prison. The baby (Henry, of course) is then procured for adoption by Mr. Gold, who provides him to Regina—further suggestion that these three characters (four, if you include Henry) are very closely tied together.
Then there’s Regina, who hasn’t a clue about the importance of family. She has no scruples about murdering her own father to cast her curse; she doesn’t hesitate to kill her lover, Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) when he begins to remember his FTL past. She may care for Henry, but I believe she thinks of him as a possession, rather than a son. And it’s clear from “True North” that the concept of “family” is completely foreign to her as the Evil Queen.
Rumple is an interesting blend of complexities. Family is important to him, enough that he risks much to protect all he has left of it, believing that he will “truly become dust” should his son be conscripted and sacrificed in a senseless war. Willing to sell his soul to protect his family, he ends up with a bad bargain, losing his family anyway. It destroys him, turning into the trickster dealmaker he becomes before he’s imprisoned. But does family still matter to him at all by the time we meet him in the series pilot?
That might well tie into why he’s willing to help Snow White for only the price of the baby’s name (which becomes a key to bringing Emma to Storybrooke). He’s aware of the queen’s curse, and is his willingness to help save Emma from it due to a deeply buried hope that he might someday be reunited with his son Bae?
Might Bae be the handsome stranger who’s come to Storybrooke? Now there’s a thought. It will be interesting to see him interact with Mr. Gold, pick up any clues.
Well, that’s all for now. Once Upon a Time returns next Sunday on ABC with “7:15” at 8:00 p.m. ET.
And just to let you know, I’ll be doing another LiveChat Event following episode 12 “Skin Deep” February 12. So, stay tuned.